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Liz Johnson, Connecting Artists to the City

: Photo by Mark Bocek.

Liz Johnson, Connecting Artists to the City

: Alumni Relations Manager Chris Sande with Liz Johnson at O'Asian Kitchen. Photo by Mark Bocek.

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Alumni Profiles: Liz Johnson (AR ’04) has turned a Cornish education into a life of service to arts and culture in Seattle City government.

The dim sum was delicious, the setting comfortable, and the location very handy — only a block or so from Seattle’s City Hall. The restaurant, with the unusual name of O’Asian Kitchen, was the perfect place to grab a bite with someone taking a well-earned break from doing the city’s business. Elisheba Johnson, who works at City as Executive & Commission Liaison for the Office of Arts & Culture, spent a lunch break catching up with Alumni Relations Manager Chris Sande about her life since Cornish. Liz, as she’s known informally, graduated in 2004 from the Art Department in painting and sculpture. A lot has changed for her in the 10 years she’s been out in the world that has led to an important role in the civic arts leadership of a city known as a mover-and-shaker in the arts.

In her work for the City of Seattle, Liz displays a wide field of interests and a practical ability to produce results. An education at Cornish provided a background for this. From the get-go, she was not one to be pinned down. “I started out in the graphic design program, and after two years, I switched over to the Art Department, which was like a totally different experience,” she says. “I’m glad that I started out in graphic design, because at the time, it was a little bit more conceptual, which is what I’m into, so I sort of had this basis before moving over to the Art Department. I was able to have a good base with different teachers and different experiences.”

After graduation, Liz found a job with a cruise line and wondered how she would show her work. She gravitated, at last, to a practice that was less rooted in her own work and more in the support of other artists. She founded the Faire Gallery Café on Capitol Hill in 2006, widening her interests yet again past the boundaries of art and design. “We did art exhibits, music shows, poetry readings, installations, comedy shows — whatever you could think of,” Liz says. “It was very much inspired by my experience at Cornish. It’s so cross-disciplinary there. And so I got used to working with different types of people from different departments.” Liz modeled her café on a classic model. “I was inspired by artists’ cafés in Paris, I fashioned myself as a Gertrude Stein,” she says.

For six years, the Faire Gallery Café was a neighborhood fixture on Capitol HIll. “Poetry readings, live music, snacks, drinks, coffee and tea ... all in one spot and walking distance from my house? Score!” wrote “Katy H.” of the café in an online review. “No matter what night of the week it is, Faire is always poppin’.” But its days were numbered. The downturn in the economy made keeping its doors open increasingly difficult. The Faire shut down in 2012. Liz had other things to think about, too, such as a new baby boy and editing a children’s book by her father, University of Washington professor Charles Johnson.

“It worked well as a six-year-long experiment,” says Liz of the Faire Gallery Café. “I gained a lot of professional experience. It was definitely a community of artists — a lot of Cornish people.” Her experiences supporting the arts and her community connections all went into preparing her for her work at the Office of Arts & Culture. Every day brings new challenges and something more to learn.

Seattle’s arts “brain” has two hemispheres: the Office of Arts & Culture, run by employees of city government, and the Seattle Arts Commission,  a “16-member [commission composed of] citizen volunteers appointed by the mayor and City Council which supports the city agency …” As liaison, Liz supports the director of the Office by fulfilling the essential role of coordinating the activities of the two. “I kind of do ‘air traffic control.’ using my knowledge of every part of the Office in assisting the arts commission,” she says. “I basically do project management for the arts commission, help them achieve their goals and things that they’re doing.” Liz also works with projects in the community, such as the Creative Advantage, an educational initiative by the Office of Arts & Culture, the Seattle School District, and the Seattle Foundation.

“It’s been a total learning curve, being in government,” says Liz, “but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a good learning curve.”


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